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Interest Grows in Freedman's Bank

The Mormon church is behind a project that has put records from a bank for former slaves onto CD-ROM.

April 04, 2001|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Created in 1865 to protect newly freed slaves from swindlers and to instill in them habits of "thrift and industry," the Freedman's Savings & Trust Co. did neither, ultimately going belly-up with millions of dollars of their money. But now, more than a century later, its depositors' records may help thousands of African Americans find their roots.

"What was really a tragedy has turned into a marvelous treasure," said Elder John B. Dickson, western North American president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which undertook the task of transferring largely unusable microfilms onto a user-friendly CD-ROM. "That's the beautiful part of a very sad moment in American history."

The CD-ROM, now available to the public, represents 11 years of volunteer labor by 550 inmates at the Utah State Prison. They painstakingly alphabetized the names of 72,000 depositors and cross-indexed them with spouses, children, parents and other kin--480,000 names in all.

The church took on the project, Dickson said, because of its basic belief that "families are eternal. Things don't end at death. We're trying to make sure families connect and find their roots."

"It's an extraordinarily valuable set of documents," said Eric Foner, a Columbia University history professor and expert on slavery, reconstruction and emancipation, who has independently studied the bank's history.

After the collapse of Freedman's Bank in 1874, handwritten records from most of its 37 branches were stashed away at the National Archives in Washington. Then, in the 1950s, the Mormon Church, long a leader in genealogical research, microfilmed them.

Neither organized nor indexed, they were of little use to anyone until 1989, when Marie Taylor, a researcher at the Family History Center in Salt Lake City, and Darius Gray, an African American church member, proposed bringing the files into the computer age. Together they became directors of the project.

"This was a great opportunity," said Dickson in a telephone interview from Salt Lake City. "I think it has helped the African American community know how much we love and respect and appreciate them as people."

To some, African Americans and the Mormon Church are strange bedfellows. Until the church's "revelation on priesthood" in 1978, blacks could not become Mormon priests. But Charles Meigs Jr., a consultant on African American and Cherokee research at the L.A. Family History Center, said he was warmly welcomed when he came to volunteer at the center a decade ago.

Researching African American genealogy poses some unique challenges, Meigs said, including uncertainty about surnames, because when family members were sold to different plantation owners, they often took their new owners' surnames.

Foner points out that "tracing people back to Africa is really impossible." Once in America, the slaves, as chattel, had no legal status. Later, when they opened bank accounts, some gave only first names. But a number of ex-slaves named the plantations where they had worked on the bank's pre-printed deposit forms, along with the plantation owners' names, giving researchers a valuable geographic link in tracing families.

Meigs said the CD-ROM is one of few major sources available to those researching African American genealogy before 1870, the year of the first postwar slavery census. Others include Civil War pension records at the National Archives (200,000 African Americans fought for the Union) and the final rolls of the five civilized tribes--the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks and Seminoles--who assimilated escaped slaves and were themselves slaveholders.

Dickson said that the church is not trying to proselytize through the material, which historians are invited to use for their own research. The Mormon Church's genealogical projects have sparked controversy in the past--for example, when it posthumously baptized Holocaust victims and listed them as Mormons on its genealogical records. A Holocaust survivors' group pressured the church to stop, and the church removed the names from its index and agreed that baptism of these deceased Jews would be allowed only if they were direct ancestors of living church members or if the church had written approval from all living members of the deceased's immediate family.

Foner's interest in the CD is as a historian. From these records, he said, "You get a little profile of the black community at that moment. Say you are writing about Buford, S.C.; you could go to the records and get a good cross section of black people in that area at that time. Or say I'm studying black carpenters in the South.

"The fact is, the Mormons are the greatest collectors of genealogical information. I have found them extraordinarily helpful and generous in making material available to historians. This is a good example."

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